*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
I'd been pinching myself since I'd won the Mercedes economy test at Kyalami, South Africa's international Grand Prix circuit. Now I had landed in Frankfurt, had been installed in a hotel on the outskirts of the city and was being cautioned to keep an eye out for the murderous Red Army Faction (RAF). It was 1977 and German terrorism was definitely a thing.
Somewhat ironically sharing an acronym with Britain's Royal Air Force, this RAF had kidnapped the industrialist and former board member of Mercedes, Hanss Martin Schleyer, and were threatening further terror action. The Mercedes public relations team hosting the international motoring press were at pains to ensure we kept vigilant, delivering the message in our hotel conference suite. This suite was located in parklike grounds with a strip of grass separating us from a dark forest. I found myself glancing repeatedly at the window expecting any minute to see camouflaged faction members bursting from the undergrowth bearing automatic rifles.
In the event, the most dangerous interval of our stay was the press day at the Hockenheim Ring where journos, hospitality tents and a broad spread of the latest German autos were combined to make the best of the Grand Prix track. There seemed to be an abundance of Opel Kadett 1.2 saloons doing battle around what was quite a fast track, the motoring reporters eagerly dicing with each other for some ephemeral badge or other.
The star of the show that year was the brand-spanking-new Porsche 928. Quite an award winning sensation combining luxury motoring with a 4.5l V8 capable of 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds and with a top speed of more than 140 mph. Doesn't sound that much compared with the supercars of today but against the aforementioned Opels at 18 seconds and 86 mph respectively, it seemed a bit like oil and water on a Grand Prix track with journos giving it the max.
I was a special guest of Mercedes and more or less had my own PR person for the day. She lined me up with a few choice Mercs before asking if there was anything else I'd like to drive. As there were a few Golf GTIs buzzing around, and they hadn't yet been released in South Africa, I replied:
"The 928, obviously, but not much chance of that [there were 100s of press members queueing] so I'd be keen on a Golf GTI, please."
"OK," she smiled, "I'll get you a GTI, come with me."
Above (l to r): Opel Kadett; Golf GTI - 0-60 < 9 seconds, top speed 113 mph - with which I instantly fell in love, darting between the Kadetts and sundry other more pedestrian German marques - eventually owned one years later; Porsche 928.
After my allocated laps in the Golf, I returned to the Volkswagen "pits" where my Mercedes friend was still chatting to her VW counterparts.
She grinned when she saw me: "Now Mark let's go and get you your 928."
I wasn't intimidated for long and on the second lap prepared to let the beast have its head as I swept through the bend into the back straight only to find two Kadetts dicing wing-mirror to wing-mirror. Thankfully the Porsche had brakes to match its performance and by the time I'd pared 30 mph off my speed, the left-hand Opel had noticed me approaching rather quickly and ducked in behind the rival car. A brief sweaty moment before sweeping on to 140 mph before the end of my treat.
Incredibly in the day's jumbled mix of people and cars there was only one incident. A journo got a bit frisky with a Porsche 911 and spun it in front of the grandstand but, for all the smoking of tyres, didn't hit anything and was able to continue.
London to Sydney Rally
My memory becomes a bit jumbled after that apart from being taken to a gorgeous bar and restaurant up in the hills somewhere between the Rhine and Main rivers and the next day being apologised to by Daimler-Benz's head of PR. I was to have gone with them to Stuttgart to the factory but they had, apparently unexpectedly, come first and second in the stupendous London to Sydney Rally and needed all hands on deck ... they'd equip me with a car for as many days as I wanted it if I was happy to do my own thing. They'd done so much for me already that I elected to seek out an old colleague and comrade, Phil Duff, who was living in the Frankfurt vicinity selling Kirby vacuum cleaners to households on the US military bases.
Phil and his partner put me up for a couple of days including motoring out to a wine festival in the Mosel. It was great to see how an old newspaper colleague was making his way in Germany
Above (l to r): Phil Duff and his then partner, living in Germany; we partook in a Mosel wine festival in Traben-Trarbach ; me in the days of smoking overlooking the Mosel from Burgruine Winneburg castle.
England and Wales road trip
Then it was off to the UK to spend a week of annual leave, including a visit to the Lynskys. The most interesting anecdotes of my time spent with Rory and Brenda and Catherine are covered in a recent tribute to Rory. I'm sad he couldn't read and, no doubt correct, some of the details of this short interlude but it will allow me to make some stuff up.
Above: one jazzy Ford Escort - I only had black and white pics so had to do some trickery to get the stripes on using the wonders of 2023 Lightroom.
I had arranged with Ford in South Africa to test a prototype of a sportier version of an Escort that may or may not have appeared down South at some stage. What I do remember is that it attracted more attention than the Golf GTIs in Germany, even though the Ford was nowhere near as competent as the VW. The Brits can be funny like that.
No sooner had I parked it outside the Lynsky pad in Ham near Richmond than a teenager appeared at the driver's window:
"D'you jazz it up yersel' then?" he demanded admiringly. I demurred half-heartedly enjoying the attention.
Flashing from a bus
Wherever I went over the next few days the car drew admiring glances. It seemed that something attainable in its unadorned form became an object of desire because its pedestrian roots were clear beneath the flash add-ons. This one had a rear boot spoiler, mag wheels and a 1.6l engine ... oh yes and stripes.
Now I'm innocently driving this magnet down the A38 to visit my friends, Bob and Carol Crampton, at their abode at Windy Ridge, Crapstone (somewhere near Plymouth). I was minding my own business when I came up behind a school bus. A teenager seemed to have been peering out of the rear window when my stripy Escort approached, initially fairly rapidly. I had to slow down and took stock of the rear window of the bus. The teenager was beckoning to her friends and pointing at the car, which was now pretty close behind. Suddenly, as if choreographed (actually it probably was) 8-10 breasts were exposed. I can't be sure whether there were 8 or 10 because I had to focus some of my attention on keeping the car on the road and not running into the rear of the bus. I don't know how long it lasted but at least until the bus turned off the A38 and on to more local roads. I continued on my journey wondering what had just happened. Remember that this was in the time of "Carry On" films when an abundance of double entendre was not yet de trop. Carry On Emmanuelle still had to be screened. Carry On Flashing at Souped Up Cars?
My sojourn with Bob and Carol flashed past in a blur. They had very recently added a little Crampton to their family and Carol was determined that my visit should not be affected in any way. She dispatched Bob and me off to the local pub on the promise that she and their young son could treat me to a tour of North Devon the following day. So off we went. Bob and I had worked together in Durban on The Daily News. We'd had quite a few itinerant international journos doing a stint and Bob had been a favourite. It was therefore appropriate that we had been sent off to The Who'd Have Thought It a mile and a half away. Evidently, the name had links to newspapers and the pub had scrumpy. I'd had scrumpy before, in London at the Smithfield Meat Market in 1975. But that was for a quick pint at lunch time. Now we were in the home of the hallowed beverage.
Bob kinda warned me but we got into reminiscing and philosophising. The pub was quiet as it was early evening and one pint of scrumpy followed the previous. I don't know how many we had, probably not that many, and I certainly didn't feel affected after all the stimulating conversation. We'd been ensconced on bar stools and now was the time to make a move back to Crapstone. Sliding off my seat my knees just kept on going until they hit the flagstone floor. Bob wasn't in a much better state despite his local knowledge. The initial stretch of the journey back to Windy Ridge involved a steep incline that both of us continued up on our hands and knees. I'd like to think that we continued our intellectual reminiscences as we progressed glacially up that hill.
Carol did not judge us and Bob bade me farewell the next morning as he set off for work looking remarkably chipper. His wife had a treat for me ... we were heading off for Clovelly and then lunch at a pub that was legendarily rude to outsiders a.k.a. "Grockles".
Above, clockwise from top: Clovelly from above; Clovelly from below; Avebury earthworks; Avebury stones.
I was predictably blown away by Clovelly. Never before seen anything like it. I have subsequently seen similar places in England's West Country but none had quite managed to match that original awe of the houses tumbling down the steepest of hills to the little harbour.
We returned to Crapstone via the aforementioned pub for lunch and Carol primed me to observe the sign above the door.
"For heaven's sake don't say anything," she cautioned, "just let me do the talking."
I kept my lips sealed as I read the sign proclaiming, "No Grockles Allowed."
Evidently, Carol explained later, anyone foolish enough to ask "what's a Grockle?" would invariably receive the reply:
"If you don't know, you are one," before being turned away from the bar.
Whizzing around Wiltshire and Wales
I had been urged, by the Lynskys and the Cramptons alike, to visit Avebury in Wiltshire. Don't bother with Stonehenge they all told me, Avebury's the real deal. And it is. In the intervening 46 years I've been back quite a number of times. Driven past Stonehenge on the A303 even more times but never been tempted to stop the car apart from once on holiday with Shelley-ann before it was all fenced off with a charge for entry.
Above (l to r): the "new" 300-year-old bridge over the Usk at Crickhowell; the Bridge End Inn back in 1977; the sporty 'scort does a glamour shot somewhere in mid-Wales
It had taken three hours to get from Crapstone to Avebury and by lunch I had time on my hands. I decided to head to Wales with no specific agenda other than an association in my head between fly-fishing and the Usk River. By the time I'd meandered up the Usk, and was about ready for a pint, I was in Crickhowell and pulling up outside The Bear Hotel, an exceedingly fine looking public house. It was late afternoon/early evening and the only other people in the bar area were three young women sharing a table.
"Nice car," one of them volunteered as I entered. I sensed a North American accent. So far the Escort's only admirers had been Brits. I wasn't particularly surprised as, bar one or two exceptions, bog standard American cars were even more boring than their British counterparts.
They invited me to join them and the conversation turned to accommodation in the town.
"Are you staying here," I asked, indicating the Bear
"No, far too expensive, we're students touring Europe," they exclaimed.
Turns out they were staying on the edge of town. I believe it was at the Bridge End Inn. The Bear was too expensive for me, too and my new friends said there was room at the Inn. Perhaps they could show me the way if I gave them a lift in the zippy Ford. The car was beginning to pay its way.
The next morning, I had to set off early to meet up with some friends in London. Elaine was a mutual friend with the Lynskys and she and a pal were heading out for dinner. We'd heard that there was a casual section as part of Simpson's in the Strand, in turn located in the Savoy. Elaine and I were wearing jeans but with smart shirts, shoes and jackets. Her friend worked at Woolmark and suits were required for work. The three of us met outside the Savoy in the early evening and mounted the steps at the entrance.
A seriously liveried functionary stepped immediately into our path.
"Where do you think you're going?" he demanded.
"We understand that there's a casual part of Simpson's and we'd like to eat there," I introduced our party.
"I'm afraid you ain't quite making it, dressed like that!" was the response and then, and I don't know if he thought he was being helpful or whatever, he gestured at Elaine's friend, adding, "apart from the young lady, who is welcome to enter."
Fortunately the car was parked not far away and we went elsewhere. There wasn't much choice in London in those days.
Back to Germany, this time to Stuttgart to check out the Mercedes HQ.
This mainly consisted of an exceedingly splendid lunch followed by being handed over to the top test driver ... a mature gentlemen who was going to take me around the legendary test track at Untertürkheim with its vertical banking on one of the corners. The experience was both exhilarating and terrifying. He struck a relaxed pose behind the wheel of a 6.9l V8 S-Class and drove around most of the track facing me and chatting. Even as we approached the wall. I must've turned very pale indeed because he eventually faced the front and entered the "wall" at something like 100 mph. I'm still here to tell the tale so we got round the banking, my lunch still in my belly and the car slowing for the pits. My host was grinning benignly and congratulated me on my fortitude.
Above: Just imagine finishing off this partially eaten eisbein after a massive lunch and a tour of the Untertürkheim banking
Then the Marketing Director of Daimler-Benz took me to the Stuttgart Oktoberfest. I found out that I wasn't allowed any beer until I'd eaten either half a chicken or an Eisbein. Needed to grease the stomach lining to lessen the effect of endless alcohol. Not even having seen the latter and knowing full well how big a chicken was, I chose the Eisbein. No sooner than I'd polished off my second enormous feast and had a 2 litre stein in my hand, the oompah band struck up and the assembled community linked arms to sway merrily back and forth. My Merc-guy was on my right and an enormous young woman was on my left. Taller than me (I was 6ft then) and sporting considerable bulk, none which appeared to be fat. My guess was an Eastern European shot-putter. Not to be trifled with.
I nodded a greeting and she nodded with what appeared to be a stern expression and then added:
"I from Finland ... do you wanna vok?"
I think mine host helped to extract me from that one. My suitor seemed unconcerned about the rebuttal but perhaps was a little more strenuous in her attempts to dislocate my left arm thereafter. The increasingly drunken swaying had to continue until the marketing man deemed it time to leave. I lost count of how many steins we consumed before he eventually dropped me at my hotel as pissed as a lord. I don't often stagger about but fine wine at lunch time and an endless stream of pilsner had taken its toll.
My flight back to Johannesburg was the next day. I had a suitcase for my clothes and a plastic carrier bag for my contraband consisting of the smelliest cheese imaginable. Limburger, ripe Camembert etc. as a gift for my Dad who loved the stuff, the more rancid the better. It also contained a copy of The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh. Bob Crampton had insisted I should read it before I got back to SA because it was sure to have been banned and be confiscated.
When I eventually arrived at Frankfurt Airport and was passing through German customs, the officer demanded to look inside my carrier bag. She recoiled instantly as the cheese odour escaped. Shutting it immediately she motioned me through hurriedly. As soon as I was on the plane I retrieved The Choirboys, finishing all 346 pages of fine print just as we were preparing to land in Joburg. I hadn't slept a wink. South African customs didn't even bat an eyelid and I still have the book today.
A sad tail - the end of an era.
*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
Above: collage expanded in text below
I'm not particularly proud of it now but, on my return from secondment in the UK in 1976, all I wanted to be was a petrol head. My last few years at The Daily News in Durban were spent reaping the benefits of being the Motoring Editor.
Actually, that's not 100% true. I really wanted to be a Political Correspondent but that post was soon to be occupied by Ivor Wilkins, the splendid fellow who was best man at Shelley-ann's and my wedding a few years later. Cars and politics, what could possibly go wrong? Well, not much actually but I always felt as if I was living on borrowed time without a proper job.
So I had a fairly brief sojourn as understudy to the incumbent Motoring Editor, Ian Grossert, before he departed for greener pastures. But not before transporting me as pillion passenger through the air cresting a brow on Durban's Western Freeway somewhere in excess of 100 mph. Our steed was a Benelli Sei (yes it had 6 [sei] cylinders) and the exhaust howl of a banshee. Happily it also had the poise to set us down gently after our airborne adventure.
Being motoring editor was pretty much an extended holiday, figuratively and literally (as we shall find out in the concluding paragraphs of this story). Basically it consisted of driving a host of different cars, the occasional motor bike and frolicking on mini-breaks, which were essentially what manufacturers' launches of their latest offerings were. Mini breaks with wine, food and accommodation way beyond the reach of a 1977 reporter's salary.
The banner collage above provides a little flavour of what the motoring editor's job involved: (l to r) the business end was writing motor-industry related stories, the most pleasurable of which were road tests, particularly those that featured cars of the ilk of a Mini Cooper S; a dawn patrol was often the best time to snap rally cars in action; we also participated in economy tests and I am seen here removing my boots to have a more sensitive foot on the accelerator pedal of a gas-guzzling Valiant.
A little more on motor sport later but first an insight into the crossover between road tests and car launches where we were taken off somewhere allegedly appropriate for the vehicles being introduced.
Above: these two frames reflect the diversity of the entertainments afforded to a bunch of journos and feature Rory Brown.
Rory Brown. Reporters of the day tended to partner up on car launches and I soon found that the most enjoyable partner was Rory. On this occasion part of the event's entertainment was to travel from one stopover to another on an historic train dubbed the Apple Express. In order to get from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur (near Uniondale) this narrow gauge train had to cross the Van Staden's River railway bridge which, at 78 metres high, is reputedly the tallest narrow gauge bridge in the world. This was too enticing a challenge for Rory, who determined to cross the bridge on the roof of the train. Today there is a "safe" platform on either side of the railway with proper railings but this was not always the case! I thought he was having a laugh. I should've known better. He disappeared on to the top of the carriage and reappeared after we'd crossed the bridge, lit a cigarette and stretched out to read his book, as can be seen in my pictures.
Still on the subject of Rory, our "car launch" went on to involve a tour of multiple wine farms. The final stop was for a posh dinner at Boschendal. We'd been drinking wine all day and needed something more thirst quenching. Our winery hostess for the evening asked us on our arrival which wine we'd like to start with. Rory and I asked for a beer. Horrified, our hostess said something to the effect of, "don't you know this is Boschendal!" We assured her that we did and that we'd be very pleased to try the estate's wine but first could we have something to quench our thirst. Evidently the best she could do was water. So we had water to accompany a splendid meal. Not a drop of Boschendal passed our lips.
We were sharing a room in a hotel in the centre of Stellenbosch. When our transport finally dropped us off after midnight we shed our outer clothing and got into bed. After about 5 minutes Rory leapt up and wrapped the counterpane around himself:
"I'm going to find a beer," he pronounced.
"But it's after midnight and this is Stellenbosch," I protested. Ignoring me, he disappeared off into the night. It must have been coming up for half-an-hour later that my companion reappeared with a quart of Castle Lager in each hand. Being the generous fellow that he was, the second quart was for my own consumption ...
There were many of these outings over the couple of years I occupied the motoring beat on the Daily News. A few stand out.
Bikey and Banjo pick up the spoor of a hippy chick
Above: A story in Afrikaans that riveted many South Africans at the time - translations in a comment more than welcome, as well as any more recent theories.
It was a long time ago,1977, but back then the memories of Rosalind Balingall's disappearance a few years before remained fresh in the minds of South Africans, especially those that might have dabbled around the edges of the hippy culture less than a decade earlier. Essentially, where Daryl (Bikey) Balfour and I came in was from the periphery of the the motor-trade hedonism that was hosting us in the super-luxury Beacon Island Hotel in Plettenburg Bay. I can't remember what the particular car was but Bikey suggested that he and I follow a lead he'd been given to some forest dweller in the "Knysnabos" who might be able to shed yet unshed light on the disappearance of Ms Balingall. I was totally up for it and we set off that evening to find the missing link. We found the bloke in a not-quite-as-run-down-cottage-as-we'd-expected and the lead went nowhere. But not before we both felt pretty spooked by the experience and being in the forest at nightfall. We shot back to the safety of Plettenburg Bay a lot more quickly than we'd accomplished on the outward journey. The link above has a pretty comprehensive account of the unsuccessful hunt for Rosalind over the years and of South African hippiedom in general.
Motorbike and caravan tackle the Wild Coast
A friend and fellow journalist, Tony Day, approached me and suggested a ruse whereby we would use a Renault 5 (R5 - he had the franchise in Durban) to tow a caravan to the Wild Coast. I discussed this with my partner-in-crime, Andy Newby, who majored on the two-wheeled side of things. As it turned out, he could get a Kawasaki KE175 scrambler on test and would be happy to incorporate a ride down to the Wild Coast as part of the proceedings. But first Tony had to get a tow hitch fitted to R5 so we could tow the van.
Then we were to head for Msikaba, at the time an exceedingly unspoiled spot on the Transkei's Wild Coast. Actually, I am 96.74% sure it was Msikaba but I'm sure if a real fundi identifies a different location from the picture, that person will let me know with a comment on this blog (where are Andy and Tony when I need them?).
Above (l to r): Motorbike at Msikaba; Caravette sans wheel; trusty custodians lived nearby.
The plan was to leave fairly early one morning, fetch the caravan (which may or may not have been a Gypsy Caravette) from Pinetown and travel the relatively smooth 340-odd km to Lusikisiki before hitting the rough stuff for the last 40 km to the coast. Andy on the Kawasaki (or Kwacker as they were affectionately known then) and Tony and me in the diminutive Renault towing the van. The journey would take around 6 hours, depending on the state of the last 40 kms. The objective was to prove the R5 could do the job.
Actually, the outward journey went without a hiccough. Parts of the road were pretty challenging but doable. We arrived in daylight, had a lekker braai and settled down for the night, tired and content. We had a day's furlough to enjoy the sand and sea before our return journey. The enjoyment was surmounted by an obscene number of fresh oysters acquired for next to nothing from the local oyster pickers. Andy, being Andy and well versed in Larousse and the necessary condiments for oysters, which he brought along, ensured that the feast was memorable.
On our third day, once again we left early. We hadn't got too far from Msikaba and there was a nasty noise from behind the Renault which started to slew around on the dirt road. Coming to a halt as gradually as we could, we leapt out to be confronted with a fairly momentous disaster. The axle of the caravan had snapped and it was going nowhere. Combined with a generous local donation to the inhabitants of some huts beside to road, we abandoned the van with a view to sending its purveyors back to the Transkei to retrieve it. Half of our mission had failed, although our R5 had come through unscathed.
Our route home was to take in some spectacular country, including the pass through the Umkomaas river valley. Perhaps without the little Gypsy we'd be able to enjoy the scenery a little more. Because of delays and stuff, we were quite far short of our destination when the light began to fade. We hadn't quite reached the treacherous pass down to the Umkomaas River. It was at this point that the sun's wasn't the only light to fade. The Kwacker's lights capitulated, too. Andy, still astride it, was pretty fearless but riding in the pitch dark was beyond the pale. Three blokes contemplated the bike and then the Renault and quickly realised the former wasn't going to fit inside the latter. We tried various strategies before settling on Tony and me driving behind the bike with the Renault's lights on full beam. I remember this being terrifying and even Andy was a tad wide-eyed as we negotiated the Umkomaas Valley before we could find somewhere secure to ditch the bike.
I can't remember much about the remainder of the escapade apart from the fact that Tony took some flack from its suppliers for abandoning the caravan. We had the last laugh after it was eventually retrieved no more scathed than it had been when it failed us on the Msikaba Road.
Motor Sport, including rallying and economy tests
Venturing out in the dead of night to report on a motor rally was always an adventure. South Africa was well represented on the world calendar in those days and there were top international stars out in the Highveld for the 1977 Total Rally. As usual the attrition on the Transvaal dirt was high and top drivers such as Ove Andersson and Roger Clark failed to make the finish line. The event was eventually won by Sandro Munari in the much-hyped exotic Lancia Stratos.
Above: this one would have been a dawn backlit shoot-out between the works Ford Escorts and Datsuns (Nissans) ... do not be deceived by the bland exterior, these things were all finely-tuned muscle under the bodywork.
The final anecdote for this episode took place at Kyalami, South Africa's Grand Prix circuit back in the day. Mercedes had assembled most of the motoring journos from around SA to introduce a new diesel car which they had hooked up to a tiny flask that bypassed the fuel tank. When we arrived they announced that the reporter who could drive the furthest around Kyalami on the contents of the flask would win a prize. It was a big prize: a trip at Mercedes' expense to the Frankfurt Motor Show. There had always been cliques within the South African motoring journo community and our little group of "Banana Boys" was regarded with condescension by the "Main Manne" from the hinterland. They were at the front of the queue to fight for the prize. This gave me the opportunity to observe a little.
The thing about the 1977 layout of Kyalami was that the start line was on a slope that drifted gradually downwards all the way around the track with a short sharp hill, Leeukop, providing a high point just before the finish. My competitors set off one by one and every one of them petered out before getting to the summit of Leeukop.
I figured that if I could just get over the hill I would be able to freewheel for almost another lap. As I had been pushed out into last slot it was make or break ... I tiptoed around most of the track and then floored it a bit before the hill gaining enough speed to creep over the top and around once more.
"Its not fair," I heard one of the Manne squeal when the result was announced.
"He cheated," another cried to the man from Mercedes.
"Mark won fair and square," grinned the man from Mercedes.
#2 of Might as well be a petrol head plots my exploits in Germany with a side trip to the UK
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